Under a new state law signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday, May 14, large railroads will be required to plan with the state for “worst-case spills” from crude oil unit trains, but exactly what that worst-case scenario looks like is not yet clear.
The law requires railroads to plan for the “largest foreseeable spill in adverse weather conditions,” but doesn’t define “largest foreseeable spill.”
In April, BNSF railway employees told Washington emergency responders that the company currently considers 150,000 gallons of crude oil – enough to fill five rail tank cars – its worst-case scenario when planning for spills into waterways. Crude oil trains usually carry about 100 rail tank cars.
“We’ve already seen worse than that though, haven’t we?” asked Roger Christensen, Bellingham’s interim emergency manager, when asked about using that amount for worst-case planning. “It seems like a low number ... I hate to respond without knowing where they’re coming from. It doesn’t seem like a worst-case scenario to me.”
The amount is lower than what has been spilled and partially burned off in several high-profile crude oil train derailments in the last three years:
“Water spills require special equipment such as boom and skimmers. The worst case release is used to make sure we have enough of this special equipment,” BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas wrote in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “For land spills we use vacuum trucks and heavy equipment to dig up the contaminant. Both of which are readily available in most areas.”
Melonas said in an interview that the 150,000-gallon number was based on studying historical derailments in the industry.
When asked if the company uses other amounts to plan for spills like the fiery derailments outlined above, Melonas replied, “We consider all scenarios when developing our emergency response plans with utilizing resources of local, regional and nationwide experts and equipment to safely and efficiently mitigate any hazardous materials incident including crude oil.”
“Until we have further regulatory clarity from the U.S. Department of Transportation on how the agency will require railroads to calculate ‘worst-case discharges’ to waterways, BNSF is considering using 150,000 gallons,” Melonas wrote. “BNSF is open to discussing the justification of this quantity with Federal or State environmental agencies.”
BNSF would not outline what its worst-case scenarios are for other situations, or say whether the company would adjust its scenario based on the new state law.
Planning for the worst
The new law tasks the state Department of Ecology with crafting the worst-case scenario for railroad contingency plans in a process that could take a year or longer, and will include input from the railroads and the public, said Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, preparedness section manager for Ecology.
“Preparedness regulations are all about planning for a potential worst-case spill,” Pilkey-Jarvis said. “It (all starts) with defining a worst-case spill volume, then that drives the whole rest of your plan.”
The volume helps planners decide which equipment needs to be staged where, and how many people need to be trained members of a spill management team, she said.
“In (Washington) state the Legislature has defined the standard of what a worst-case spill volume should be, and in general it’s a pretty high bar,” Pilkey-Jarvis said.
Washington state requires marine ships that transport oil to plan for a spill of the entire cargo, including whatever fuel is aboard to operate the vessel.
Planning for that type of all-in worst case creates pushback from the industry, which sometimes says, “That could never happen,” Pilkey-Jarvis said.
“Well, that doesn’t matter from a planning perspective if you think that could happen or not,” she said. “From a planning perspective, we’re defining everything as a worst case.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently ran through a worst-case crude oil train derailment scenario in Jersey City, New Jersey. The exercise took emergency planners through an imagined scenario that could potentially kill or injure more than 1,000 people, and displace even more from their homes near the incident.
The scenario started with five of 90 tank cars derailing and spilling roughly 100,000 gallons of crude oil, which caught on fire. The blaze heats up other tanks, which rupture and spill more oil. The scenario outlined 225,000 gallons being consumed by flames, with the other 225,000 left on the ground, for a total 450,000-gallon spill.
“This is consistent with other real world events, such as the Galena, (Illinois) tank car derailment,” FEMA spokeswoman Susan Hendrick wrote in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “Complex and progressive scenarios allow communities to prepare for a range of consequences they may be faced with, including the size, scope and severity of an incident.”
In Bellingham, planners have not yet decided what the worst-case scenario might look like, Christensen said.
However, planners have calculated that throughout the city, 27,000 Bellingham residents – about a third of the population – live within the half-mile evacuation zone of the railroad tracks, he said.
Whatcom County and Bellingham planners work with BNSF, BP Cherry Point and Phillips 66 refineries, and other involved partners, to plan for different emergencies in the county.
Last fall, planners ran through a tabletop discussion of what resources might be available if 60,000 gallons of crude oil spilled from a train near Squalicum Harbor, Christensen said.
“It was a tabletop so we never got to the point of actually ‘deploying’ resources, but we did get a handle on that there is a significant amount of resources in our community,” he said. “We’re much more prepared than a lot of them, because of industrial partnerships. They might be the reason the hazard is coming through ... but at least in Whatcom County we do have the industrial partners that bring resources to the table as well.”
Whatcom County Fire District 7 Chief Gary Russell said he’s not worried about knowing BNSF’s worst-case scenario, as it doesn’t change how his firefighters would respond to a derailment. His district covers nine miles of mostly rural BNSF track, and includes the two Whatcom County refineries.
“If it was one tank car on fire, we’d address it the same if it was five, we’d just probably not have the ability to deal with it,” Russell said. “In a derailment out here, you’d be protecting the area while it eliminated its fuel source.
“We treat every day like it’s an all-risk hazard. It doesn’t matter if it’s a freight train or a passenger train, with a greater loss of life,” he continued. “I worry about the product I don’t know anything about that’s in a tank car. ... I’d rather have oil going up and down the rails than I would acids, sulfurs, chlorine and other hazardous commodities, because they can harm people faster than oil.”
Different reporting requirements
Unlike stationary facilities that have hazardous materials or chemicals on hand, railroads are exempt from nearly all requirements of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA).
After a disastrous release of toxic gas at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, that killed thousands of people in 1984, the U.S. Congress passed EPCRA to try to prevent similar accidents.
While businesses such as certain gas stations, water treatment plants, and fish processors need to report what hazardous chemicals are on their properties to state and local officials, and to make that information available to the public, railroads do not. The act “does not apply to the transportation, including the storage incident to such transportation” of chemicals otherwise included in the act.
Railroads do need to submit their worst-case discharge calculations and plans to the U.S. Department of Transportation, but they are not available to the public.
“It’s un-American to withhold these documents from the public,” said Fred Millar, an independent rail consultant who worked for environmental groups that helped pass right-to-know rules in the 1980s and ’90s. “For the first 20 years or so, the railroads said to us, ‘No law forces us to give you this information, we consider it confidential.’ After 9/11, they said ‘We won’t give you the information because of terrorism, you know.’
“Keeping it secret is a little like elephants tiptoeing through the tulips,” he said.
Pipeline companies are required to submit their oil spill response plans to the DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. They are published online, but the worst-case scenario numbers are redacted from the reports.
Last year, DOT required railroads to notify emergency response agencies of shipments of 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil through their states, but the introduction of new regulations on May 1 ended that requirement.
Now, railroads will share that information directly with emergency responders, but it will be exempt from public records laws and the Freedom of Information Act, the way that other hazardous materials such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia are currently protected.
The new Washington state oil safety law requires seven days’ advance notice from the facilities that receive crude oil, such as refineries, before trains are scheduled to come through the state. That information is supposed to be given to the state, which will make it available to emergency responders immediately, and will aggregate the numbers quarterly for release to the public.
McClatchy reporter Curtis Tate contributed to this report.